The Parachute Through the Regency

Certainly, our Regency ancestors did not enjoy the sport of skydiving. However, a functional parachute had been invented some years before the Prince of Wales became Regent. In fact, a woman had made a successful parachute jump in the last year of the eighteenth century. Yet, by the Regency, a human gently coming to earth by means of a parachute was a rare spectator event, which generated much the same degree of interest as that of a hot air balloon ascension. And, though the back-pack style harness of the modern parachute was still a century away, there were at least one or two instances when a parachute was used to save a life or for a stealthy entry into foreign territory.

The parachute through the Regency . . .

Though Leonardo da Vinci generally gets credit for being the first person to sketch a design for a parachute, probably in 1485, there exists an earlier drawing, from about 1470, which seems to precede his work. This earlier design was found in a anonymous Italian manuscript which is now in the collection of the British Museum. This 1470 drawing depicts a conical canopy with a crossbar frame at its base, from which a man dangles while gripping the centers of two of the crossbars with his hands. In addition, there are cords or straps running from the ends of all four crossbars to a belt at the man’s waist. About fifteen years later, in one of his notebooks, Leonardo sketched his design of a pyramidal canopy, which was held open by a square wooden frame. It is not known if Leonardo ever saw the 1470 drawing, so it is not known whether his design may have been an improvement on it, or his own, original design. According to his notes, Leonardo designed this parachute so that it might be used by people seeking to escape the upper floors of a burning building.

It must be noted that neither the Italian artist of the unsigned drawing of 1470, nor Leonardo da Vinci, were the first men to consider the concept that with enough drag through the air, a person could leap from a great height and come gently and safely down to the ground. Scholars have found evidence which suggests that in twelfth-century China, entertainment was sometimes provided by acrobats using rigid, umbrella-like canopies to jump from a high platform and float gently to the ground. It is not clear whether the unknown Italian, or Leonardo, were aware of these Chinese "parachutes" when they designed their versions of the parachute. Nevertheless, the much more elaborate Renaissance Italian designs are now considered to be the origins of the modern-day parachute. [Author’s Note:   There is no record that either of the Italian parachute designs were tested at the time of their creation. However, Leonardo’s design was built, and tested, in 2000 and 2008, and was successful in each instance.]

In fact, the first actual test of a real parachute would not take place for more than a century. An inventor from Croatia, Fausto Veranzio, is believed by many to have been the first person to actually design, build and test a parachute. Veranzio had begun work on his parachute design in 1595, based on Leonardo’s sketch of his parachute design. By 1617, Veranzio was living in Venice, where he finally completed his design and had a canopy constructed to his specifications. According to the story, Veranzio went to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) of St. Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, with his parachute, which he called Homo Volans (the Flying Man). He buckled himself into the harness he had attached to the canopy and leapt from the tower, floating gently down to the Piazza San Marco, below. Some scholars are skeptical of this tale, since Veranzio was sixty-five years old in 1617, and he died later that year, not to mention that there are no contemporaneous records of this parachute test. For that reason, many believe that the story of this parachute test, recorded more than three decades later, was due to a misunderstanding or mis-translation of notes supposedly made at the time. It is possible that Veranzio’s Homo Volans was tested in Venice, but by an assistant, rather than by him personally.

For more than another century and a half, the idea that the velocity of a body falling through the atmosphere could be slowed by the air resistance created by some kind of large canopy lay dormant. It would not be addressed again until the early 1780s, by Louis-Sébastien Lenormand, a French physicist and inventor. Curiously, it is believed that Lenormand’s inventive spirit was sparked when he attended the performance of a tightrope walker from Thailand, who used a large parasol to help maintain his balance. And the driving force behind Lenormand’s invention seems to have been the same as that of Leonardo da Vinci, he was hoping to find a safe means by which people could escape from the upper floors when a building was on fire. Lenormand made his first jump from a tree, using a pair of large umbrellas which he had modified for the purpose. He then conducted various tests using animals, until he had perfected his device, in 1783. The day after Christmas in that year, in front of a large crowd, he leapt from the observatory tower in his home town of Montpellier, using a parachute which was made of linen, fourteen feet in diameter and stretched over a rigid wooden frame. This leap was successful and Lenormand drifted safely down to the ground, without harm, much to the amazement of the onlookers.

Two years later, in 1785, Lenormand gave his new invention the name by which it is known today. He combined the Italian prefix, para, meaning to resist, avert, shield or guard, with chute, the French word for fall. Thereby he coined the word "parachute," a device which provided resistance to the air and could thus guard one against falling fast and hard to the ground. However, once he had demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention and given it a name, Lenormand apparently made no effort to pursue it commercially. There is no evidence he even took out a patent for this new parachute. Instead, he devoted himself to the study of science and technology, eventually becoming a Carthusian monk and a teacher at a university.

As luck would have it, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier was present in Montpellier, on 26 December 1783, the day Louis-Sébastien Lenormand demonstrated his new invention. Montgolfier and his brother had invented the hot air balloon and made their first ascent with humans in the fall of that same year. The ballooning fraternity at that time was quite small, and Montgolfier was acquainted with Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who made the first successful balloon flight in Paris, in March of 1784. That flight nearly ended in calamity when one of the spectators, a military man who was denied a place in the basket, slashed at the mooring ropes with his sword. Though Blanchard had less control during the flight, eventually, his balloon landed with no serious injury to the passengers. Blanchard saw the parachute as a means by which a balloonist could safely disembark aloft from a balloon which was in danger of crashing.

Lenormand’s parachute had been made of linen, stretched over a rigid wooden frame. By the 1790s, Blanchard, familiar with balloon construction, knew that silk, though more expensive, was both lighter and stronger. However, like Lenormand, he began by stretching the silk for his parachute over a rigid frame. But gradually, he realized that the air resistance would keep the canopy of the parachute open as it descended. Therefore, by dispensing with the frame, the parachute could be made even lighter, with no loss of strength. It could also be made more compact for storage, since it was then composed of only the folded silk canopy and the cords which attached it to a basket or the person using it. In addition to being the first to use silk, Blanchard is also credited as the inventor of the first foldable parachute which did not require a rigid frame to function. Initially, Blanchard tested his parachute with dogs, but in 1793, he reported that when the bag of his balloon ruptured, he used one of his parachutes to descend safely to the ground. There were no witnesses to this emergency parachute descent, so it was only documented in Blanchard’s own notes, but there is no reason to assume the incident did not happen just as he described it.

As a professional balloonist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard continued to conduct balloon flights across Europe, including Britain, through the eighteenth century. In the late 1790s, he traveled to the United States, where he conducted dozens of balloon flights before returning to Europe. Sadly, in February of 1808, he suffered a heart attack while aloft, which caused him to fall from the basket of his balloon with no time to employ a parachute. He never recovered from his severe injuries and died in March of the following year. His wife, Sophie, continued on with her profession as a balloonist for the next ten years, until she became the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident, in July of 1819. During a hydrogen balloon ascent over the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, she launched some fireworks from the basket. The sparks from the fireworks ignited the gas in the balloon and she was killed when it exploded and the basket plummeted to the ground. It is not clear whether she had one of her husband’s parachutes on board at the time.

André-Jacques Garnerin was a French soldier who was captured by British troops in the early days of the French Revolutionary Wars. He was given into the custody of the Austrians, who sent him to a prison in Buda, Hungary, where he was held for about three years. He hated prison and spent most of his time dreaming of ways to escape. One of his ideas was to use a parachute to leap from the walls of the prison and float down into the countryside beyond. Though he had neither the materials nor the opportunity to build his escape parachute, he did not forget about it when he was finally released from prison. When he returned to France, he took up the study of ballooning, while also experimenting with designs for parachutes. Like Lenormand, Garnerin’s first parachute was made of white linen canvas, stretched over an umbrella-like frame. However, he soon began to base his parachute designs on those of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, using silk rather than canvas, and dispensing with the rigid frame. Also like Blanchard, Garnerin used parachutes together with balloons.

In Paris, on 22 October 1797, Garnerin made the first public descent using a frame-less silk parachute. He was carried aloft by a hydrogen balloon to a height of about 3,000 feet. He rode in a basket which was attached to the parachute canopy, and the basket was also attached to the balloon by ropes. When the balloon had carried him high enough, he cut the ropes which connected the balloon. It continued to rise, while his parachute began to fall. The canopy remained open, but the basket was fiercely swung about during the descent, before it hit the ground and bounced hard upon landing. Fortunately, Garnerin was not injured, though he did complain of suffering severe motion sickness during the descent. As it happened, this problem would not be solved until 1804, when the French scientist and astronomer, Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande, determined that a small vent at the top of the parachute canopy would prevent the violent oscillations which had plagued Garnerin during his descents while using a canopy with no openings.

The following year, Garnerin announced that he was planning a balloon ascent in which he would be accompanied by a young woman. Though the public was eager to see such an ascent, there was great furor among government officials. The Minister of Police issued an injunction against Garnerin, claiming to be concerned with what effect the reduced air pressure might have on the organs of the more delicate female body, not to mention the impropriety of a man and a young woman being together in such close proximity aloft. Garnerin appealed to the Minister of the Interior, and eventually, the injunction was lifted and the young lady was allowed to accompany him, in July of 1798. The ascent went perfectly and the crowds were delighted. Soon thereafter, Garnerin took on an eager young female student, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse, whom he later married. She is believed to be the first woman to make a solo ascent in a balloon. She also became the first woman to descend in the basket of a parachute, on 12 October 1799. In addition, almost exactly three years later, in October of 1802, it was Jeanne Garnerin who filed the patent application for her husband’s parachute design.

In 1802, the Garnerins journeyed to England, when the Peace of Amiens made travel from France possible after the French Revolutionary War. While there, they conducted a number of balloon flights, as well a several parachute descents. Both spectacles were very popular with the British public and were attended by large crowds. Their trip came to a sudden end in 1803, when Britain once again declared war on Napoleon, due to his unrelenting effort to expand his control in Europe. When they returned to France, the Garnerins continued their balloon and parachute demonstrations across France, and sometimes in the countries controlled by Napoleon. Once the Napoleonic Wars were over, they were free to travel where they pleased and their balloon and parachute demonstrations were always well-received on their tours. Sadly, in 1823, Garnerin was killed when he was struck by a large beam while working on the construction of a new balloon. Upon his death, Jeanne Garnerin gave up ballooning and parachuting demonstrations and opened a restaurant.

Garnerin’s niece, Élisa, began learning to handle a balloon at the age of fifteen. Not long after, she also took up parachuting. In September of 1815, when Paris was in the mood to celebrate, after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, she ascended in a balloon, then descended in a parachute, much to the delight of the crowds below. In the years that followed, Élisa was sometimes accompanied by her sister, Eugénie. However, Élisa was a hard-headed business woman who did not always pay the fees or taxes required for her demonstrations and was sometimes accused of false advertising, since she did not always deliver on her published promises for an event. In time, her uncle began to complain that she was damaging his reputation, so she seems to have avoided engagements in France and spent most of her time touring outside the country until after her uncle’s untimely death.

There were very few significant changes made to the design of parachutes for the rest of the century. It was not until the early twentieth century that Charles Broadwick, an American balloonist and inventor, developed a carefully folded parachute which he wore strapped to his back. In 1905, his wife and partner, Maude, was killed in a fall from a balloon. Two years later, he introduced this new style of folded parachute which could be worn on the back during a balloon flight. If a balloon passenger jumped or fell, the parachute was released as they fell by a static line attached to the basket. The actual back-pack style of parachute which is most commonly used today was invented by Gleb Yevgeniyevich Kotelnikov, a Russian inventor and actor. He had witnessed the death of an experienced Russian pilot in a plane crash, which so shocked and horrified him that he became determined to develop a parachute which could be used to save the lives of pilots should their airplane malfunction. He applied for and was granted a patent on his new back-pack style parachute design in 1911.

Dear Regency Authors, might a parachute add an interesting aeronautical embellishment to an upcoming story of romance? Might the heroine be an intrepid aeronaut who travels Britain conducting demonstrations of a parachute descents. What might happen if her parachute is blown off course by a powerful gust of wind and she comes to earth at some distance from her intended landing place? Could that be how she meets the hero for the first time? Since both balloons and parachutes were not only airborne but relatively silent means of travel, might the hero parachute from a balloon into enemy territory on a mission for the Crown? [Author’s Note:   There were some successful balloon crossings of the English Channel, from England to France, the flight taking about two and a half hours, in the early years of the nineteenth century. However, all attempts to cross the Channel from France to England at that time failed, usually with fatal consequences. Something an author might want to keep in mind.] Then again, mayhap the hero is working to design a better parachute. Will he test his prototypes using animals, and will the heroine be concerned for the well-being of the creatures he is sending airborne? How else might a parachute help to provide a soft landing for a tale of romance in the Regency?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to The Parachute Through the Regency

  1. I’ve already used this! In my second Scarlet Pimpernel sequel set in 1797, i mention parachutes, which are included in a clandestine balloon crossing to France, the crossing timed with a member of the Royal Society taking windspeed readings, so the crossing of the French coast is under cover of darkness. [the return is taken by other means] though the story needs work before I’m ready to publish it.
    The Italian parachute of 1617 might well feature however in my YA series about how Walter Raleigh sought El Dorado and found …. dragons.

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